NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS

Location: Lincoln, NE

Facilities: Memorial Stadium (90,000)

Coach: Mike Riley (first season)

Ranking: None (27 votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll, six votes in the AP Poll)

Series: First meeting

What’s the big deal?

As openers go, this one is huge for both programs. Nebraska is breaking in a new coaching staff and its last loss at home on opening day was in 1986, an NCAA record streak of 29 consecutive seasons. BYU, meanwhile, is opening its season with the return of quarterback Taysom Hill, who went down in Game 5 last year. Memorial Stadium seats more than 90,000 and Husker fans are aching to become a championship contender again. Former Oregon State coach Mike Riley was hired to wash away the bad taste of the Bo Pelini era. This is the first meeting between the two schools.

Riley on playing BYU: “Defensively, we’re going to have to play very physically to match them. They will power run the football with their tailback, but I think you also have to be very versatile on defense. You’re going to handle an athlete (Taysom Hill) that reminds us of a guy like Jake Locker at quarterback that is big and can run the ball and is very versatile. On both sides of the ball and special teams, they will be a very physical team.”

Numbers to ponder: Nebraska is one of only two teams to have had a player taken in every NFL Draft since the common draft era began in 1967. … The Huskers play 11 consecutive games without a bye this season. … Nebraska has 17 former players and six former coaches enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

He said it: “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a big dude and he loves to run. But we’ve got something for him. We’re going to make sure we contain him and the deep ball very well.” – Nebraska safety Byerson Cockrell on Hill.

Huskers on Offense

It’s a new offense for junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who was pretty good at running the last one. As a sophomore, Armstrong ran for 705 yards and six touchdowns while passing for 2,695 yards and 22 more scores. He’s strong, and when he gets his shoulders turned, he’s a load to bring down. He’ll also be without two weapons he had last year – running back Ameer Abdullah (1,611 yards, 19 touchdowns) and the school’s all-time leading receiver, Kenny Bell. Dangerous punt returner and receiver DeMornay Pierson-El is out for the first part of the season as well. The running back spot will be by committee, but none of the returners have the shake-and-bake displayed by Abdullah. Junior Jordan Westerkamp is the best of the receivers. The offensive line returns an All-Big Ten candidate in tackle Alex Lewis.

The group was pretty explosive last season, rolling up 37.8 points per game.

Huskers on Defense

The strength of the Huskers “Blackshirts” is in the middle. Defensive tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins are NFL-caliber. Defensive end Randy Gregory left for the NFL, so the Huskers are looking for some players to step up in the pass rush. The best returning player in the back seven is junior safety Nate Gerry, a headhunter and playmaker who led Nebraska in interceptions last season with five. The linebackers are led by tackle machine Michael Rose-Ivey but there are some questions there. It looks like the Huskers will start true freshman Dedrick Young, who joined the program in January, at one of the linebacker spots.

This group gave up 26.4 points per game last season.

Huskers on Special Teams

Pierson-El was one of the country’s top punt returners last season, so he will be missed. Kicker Drew Brown is solid but watch out for the strong right leg of punter Sam Foltz, who’s best blasting rockets during fall camp.

Riley’s Final Word: “I always say that the one thing I have noted about Nebraska, in general, is that people care and they care in a lot of different ways, but one of the ways is obvious, the interest in the program and the kids in the program, the history of the program, all of that. People care about it. They’re interested in it. You really don’t want it the other way. I would say this is at the highest level and that’s a good thing.”

Darnell Dickson, who has been covering sports in Utah since 1989 (with a detour to Nebraska for three years somewhere in there), is currently the BYU football columnist and BYU men’s basketball beat writer.

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